"I'm so tired of being on the street. I was an assembler in a cabinet shop; it closed and now my hands are so bad with arthritis. We're treated worse than stray dogs. I'd give anything so me and others don't suffer like this."
So said Jeff*, one of San Luis Obispo's chronically homeless, a problem which seems too multi-layered and expensive to resolve. Supervisor Adam Hill, however, doesn't believe that "the problem is bigger than possible solutions."
We'll explore those solutions in my next column. But, for too many, the problem of homelessness lies with the homeless themselves. Let's suspend judgment until we meet a couple of our brothers and sisters, as Hill calls them.
Take Jeff. He regularly seeks a shower, food, respect, and compassion handed out at the mobile shower unit operated by Hope's Village, a program founded by Becky Jorgeson.
"In seven months, we've provided 950 showers," Jorgeson told me. "We're helping locals; 70 percent of our clients are SLO-born and raised. The only difference between 'them' and 'us' is that we have a bed."
You've seen some sleeping in the park, but look under bridges and in the weeds alongside creeks. There are more homeless than you think.
Grace McIntosh, deputy director of Community Action Partnership SLO, told me we have 1,200 to 3,500 homeless in our county—more per capita than LA. The county's 2017 Homeless Point-In-Time Census and Survey reported that 66 percent of our local homeless are older than 41, and more than 80 percent are white.
Who are they? Are they all mentally ill, drug-addled, or simply lazy? Do they choose to live on the street?
I met a score of homeless citizens at the showers, at the encampments along the creek on lower Higuera, and at the Prado Day Center. Not one chooses to live as they do. Listen:
Tom: "I've been homeless for five years. I'd like to succeed, get a job, and take care of myself. We're struggling and fighting to become one of 'them,' you know, regular society."
Gloria: "I had to escape DV [domestic violence], and lived on the streets for three years. So many homeless women are fleeing DV—there's not enough room at the women's shelter. I'd like to go back to school, and help people realize they're loved."
John: "I've been homeless most of my life. I used to be in Morro Bay, but the police there arrest you for sleeping. The homeless live in fear. There's nothing like feeling hunted, it's dehumanizing. Meth is rampant. Hygiene is a big issue. Women are at risk."
Joe: "People need to open their hearts. They yell, 'Get a job,' but it's not so simple. Lots of people think homelessness is a choice. This is no choice. It's not a choice to be mentally ill."
Greg: "I know a homeless lady in Morro Bay who has cancer and three kids under 12. They'll end up in the system. Drugs and alcohol are an escape."
Angela: "Most Californians are a paycheck away from homelessness—the majority of the homeless simply lost a job. We need proper health care, proper nutrition. California has failed in helping the homeless."
June: "These showers are wonderful. I would love for them to get another truck so that they'd be available every day. Every dollar spent on getting someone in a home saves money."
Stephanie: "I've never been in trouble; I have a driver's license; I raised three kids in SLO. But I broke a rule at Prado and got kicked out. I'm not mentally ill. It's not my choice to be here. I got raped and beat up."
Grace: "I fell behind my rent. My youngest son was in high school; the landlord gave us five minutes to get out. My dog Tango keeps me warm."
Mark: "I have a fatal flaw, I guess. I've worked in a lot of restaurants, but I go off the rails now and then. I take responsibility. If I could find a way to be presentable and have self-confidence, I'd go out looking for work."
Dan: "I'm on felony probation because I broke a guy's jaw. He punched me first but my punch caught him on the jaw. More than half of my SSI disability money goes to my fine and mandatory classes. How can I put down first and last month rent to get a place? We're not like what people say. We know we screwed up, but we're working to improve."
Bob: "After you've been homeless for a time, you lose memories of regular life. I miss my teeth, hot showers, hot meals. It's not easy."
As CAPSLO's McIntosh reminds us, "Each homeless person belongs to someone, a mother, father, siblings. Would you avert your eyes if that was your son?"
Isn't her question the one we should ask ourselves before turning from the problem? Next month let's look at the problem we try not to look at. Let's consider what we can do to return dignity to our fellow human beings. Δ
* All names have been changed to respect privacy.
Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor email@example.com.